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ClassicsOnline Home » DUKAS: Piano Sonata / Variations on a Theme of Rameau
Paul Dukas (1865-1935)
Complete Piano Music
Paul Dukas was born in Paris on 1st October 1865 and died
there on 17th May 1935. Although his catalogue of published works is small, it
is of the highest quality, consisting essentially of one overture, Polyeucte,
one symphony, one symphonic scherzo (the immortal L’apprenti sorcier), one
choreographic poem, La Péri, one opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, and four piano
works, two occasional pieces written in memory of two great masters, Haydn and
Debussy, and two others now considered key compositions of both their genre and
their time, the Sonata in E flat minor and the wonderful “Rameau” Variations.
Dukas’s respect for music, his audience and himself resulted in extreme, and at
times excessive self-criticism and censorship. Far from damaging his inventive capacity,
however, his exacting standards brought him enlightenment and stimulation,
hence the dense textures, the imagination and the subtlety to be found in even
his shortest works.
The Prélude élégiaque of 1909, composed around the letters
H-A-Y-D-N to mark the centenary of Haydn’s death for the Revue de la Société
Indépendante de Musique, is a leading example of those monuments created by
classical composers to pay homage to one of their own. Its calm, vibrant and
full sonorities reveal an affection and admiration for the composer of The
Creation as well as for all that he represented in terms of inventiveness and
balance. Dukas used words as well as music to praise Haydn in his Chroniques
musicales. In fact ever since 1904 he had been describing his fellow composer
as “pure of heart, a genius, a creative spirit and a natural, with faith in the
absolute expressive value of music”.
In similar fashion, from the very first notes of La Plainte,
au loin, du faune (1920) we are left in no doubt of Dukas’s love, veneration
even, for the work of Debussy. His grief at his friend’s death is expressed
here through the sorrowful chromaticisms and great simplicity of this sombre,
noble and unpretentious work which recreates the powerful, sensual harmonies of
the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
The great Sonata in E flat minor is composed on a grander
scale altogether. Dedicated to Saint-Saëns, it was first performed in Paris’s
Salle Pleyel on 10th May 1901 by Edouard Risler. It followed the sweeping
Symphony in C and L’apprenti sorcier of 1896-97 and is acknowledged to be one
of the twentieth century’s greatest works for piano. While certain influences
can be glimpsed - Beethoven, Liszt, Franck - the sonata is really the
reflection of Dukas’s own classical and aesthetic thinking, as marked by
refined emotion and a discursive density requiring absolute concentration on
the part of both the listener and the performer. Nothing is superfluous here,
everything is significant.
The sonata has a four-movement design. The opening
Modérément vite is constructed on two themes, the first, anxiety-laden, in E
flat minor, the second, more serene, in C flat minor, and uses regular sonata
form, exposition, development and recapitulation. The second movement, Calme,
un peu lent, très soutenu, also has two themes. It takes its substance not from
the opposition of motifs but, much more subtly, from their complementary
nature, in a stunning lyrical progression stemming from ornamental variation
and the double so beloved of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers.
After these melodies in flowing contrapuntal phrases, the third movement,
Vivement, avec légèreté, acts as a bithematic scherzo which is then added to
and enlivened by a third motif, briefly treated in fugato. The finale, in E
flat and 4/4 time, is rhythmical and wonderfully “orchestrated”. Without going
as far as a Franck-like cyclical form, Dukas allows the opening scheme to
reappear: a magnificent culmination to this dazzling work, free from any
weakness, be it in tone, thought or writing, whose grandiose conclusion
broadens the details of the opening bars into a supreme dimension.
The Variations, Interlude et Finale triptych completed in
February 1902 and again first performed by Risler, on 23rd March 1903 at the
Société Nationale de la Musique, constitutes a different challenge, that of
constructing new and impressive material from the basis of the smallest musical
fragment. Once more demonstrating in his music the analysis championed in his
critical writings, Dukas chooses a theme of disarming simplicity from Rameau.
Then he applies some of his own views, for example, that true music can free
itself from earlier writing and instruments (in this case the harpsichord).
Finally, he does away with time as the spirit of an age in order to tend
towards the universal and the intemporal in a fabulous adventure.
The first seven variations are essentially melodic. No. 1 is
characterized by the use of counterpoint, No. 2 by its rhythmic strength, while
in Nos. 3 and 4 the theme switches between bass and soprano, from one hand to
the other; in No. 5 we hear modulating polyphony, No. 6 uses an echo effect and
No. 7 has a leaping, skipping melody. There is a livelier feel to the final
four variations. No. 8 is in arpeggios, No. 9 has a gigue rhythm, No. 10 that
of a sarabande, and No. 11 unfolds in a very peaceful atmosphere. Then comes
the dreaming Interlude, a moment of calm between the earlier tension and the
great surge of the Finale, where the principal motif divides, first syncopated,
then magnified, until the two reunite in the final apotheosis. This superb and
powerful tribute to Rameau illustrates the extent of Dukas’s desire for
Apollonian clarity. After the density of the Sonata, his creation has become
refined, achieving the very quintessence of music, and of the classical spirit,
Bénédicte Palaux Simonnet
English version by Susannah Howe
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